Monday, May 21, 2018

Sagada, Mountain Province, Philippines

Sagada - visited April 16, 2018
The rain continued all the way to our trek to our hotel in Sagada. Before we went to the hotel, we stopped by the tourist bureau and checked in, paying a 40-peso per person fee to cover environmental upkeep of Sagada’s sights. We were to keep the receipt and show it whenever we went to any of the tourist attractions like the waterfalls, caving, or hikes. Truthfully, we were never asked to show it but 40 pesos (less than $1 USD) is little enough that I would advise paying it for the privilege of enjoying what Sagada has to offer.
My cousin Abby had booked us ahead of time at Agape Log Cabin. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I travel, I find it best to roll with whatever happens and whatever you find. In the case of the Agape Log Cabin, it wasn’t technically a cabin but rather a 4-story house. The interior gives a log cabin feel with the way it was constructed with bamboo inside. After we checked in, our host showed us up to the third floor, politely asking us to leave our shoes on the first floor as they provided thin, flimsy but clean slippers to wear on the room floors. I am not a fan of shoes in the house (Asian culture) so this was fine with me. Plus it attested to the cleanliness of the floors and stairs.
There looked to be about 3 rooms to each floor with a shared bathroom and shared shower facilities (one person at a time when using). We had booked two rooms, one for me and one for my cousin Eman and Jessie to share. When I say room, I mean room. As in it had a mattress on the ground with clean sheets and pillows and a mirror hanging on the wall. Curtains covered the closed windows. This is a room where the hotel managers expect their guests are just going to use it as somewhere to sleep. It isn’t fancy but it was clean and the several staff we saw were unfailingly friendly and polite. If you want fancy accommodations with room service, go elsewhere. If you want simple and clean, Agape is a good choice.

After the long drive from metro Manila and the trek through the downpour after seeing the Banaue Rice Terraces, we were done for the day and crashed early. But also because we had planned to see the sunrise at Kiltepan Peak in Sagada, about 15-20 minutes from our hotel. Again, drawing from my past Maui experience, this was akin to going to see the sunrise at Haleakela.
Fortunately, the drive to the peak wasn’t as long as the drive to Haleakela so we were able to leave at 5 am and get there in plenty of time before sunrise. The road to get there wasn’t actually constructed for most of the way, as in no cement or concrete/asphalt/tar roads. It wasn’t even gravel for much of the stretch. Instead, it was dirt and rocks and required more careful maneuvering on Jessie’s part. If you didn’t have a car, the tourist office offers transport for 500 pesos (about $10 in USD). If you prefer, you can also hike on foot but wear good hiking boots and start early so you can get there in time for sunrise.

When we arrived, it was to find a crowd of people already there. It wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as Haleakala had been so we were able to find optimum spots to see the sunrise.
Kitelpan Peak is also known where you can see the “Sea of Clouds”. It overlooks some of the Banaue Rice Terraces but the clouds settle low so you can view them as a “sea”. When we arrived, the skyline was grey and just starting to blush pink. It didn’t take long for the sun to rise, casting colors only as Mother Earth and Mother Nature can. I love sunrises anywhere but I especially loved seeing it come over the clouds and climb, diminishing the gray and replacing it first with pink and purple then brighter hues verging towards orange and finally yellow, highlighting the fluffy white clouds.
I especially loved that it was cool. My cousin Eman just about froze to death since it was “freezing” to him but a nice crisp 50 degrees for me without any humidity so I loved it. It was just cool enough that I could wear a lightweight jacket and also appreciate the stands nearby offering hot Filipino breakfast of champorado (chocolate rice porridge), sopas (soup) and arroz caldo (rice porridge with hard boiled egg and chicken). There were multiple stands with the same offerings as well as tables to sit at. I thought it was brilliant entrepreneurship, a common trait in Filipinos, as they provided a service and good that was perfect for that experience.
Arroz Caldo at Kitelpan Peak
My mom makes a really good arroz caldo and the bowls we got were just as good (shh).  I don’t normally eat rice for breakfast but when in Rome….or Sagada. And it was a really good breakfast.
Afterwards, we headed for Echo Valley, one of the tourist spots on the map of activities provided by the Tourist Bureau. Echo Valley is where the locals bury their dead, at both a traditional cemetery as well as against the mountain side if they were to bury their dead in a hanging coffin. It’s called Echo Valley because there’s a point near the top where you can shout into the valley and hear your shout echo. I have never felt it appropriate to shout anywhere near a cemetery or where the dead are so Eman, Jessie and I passed.
Our tour guide in Echo Valley
When we first pulled into the parking lot, we found a local man sitting on the steps. Turns out he was a local guide for anyone who showed up, such as ourselves, so, for 100 pesos ($2 USD) per person, he led us into the valley and told us tidbits about the local customs and traditions on the walk.

First we made a slight climb to a traditional cemetery where he said families could choose to bury their dead here. Then we started to trek downwards on (sometimes slippery) stone steps to make our way into the valley. You need good shoes here with traction, no cute but flimsy flip flops, but serviceable shoes. I had packed a pair of tennis shoes just for the Banaue/Sagada trip but even I had to hold onto the railings as some of the stone steps were wet.

There’s a point on the upper part of the trail where you could step onto an outcropping of rocks overlooking the valley and scream into the abyss if you wanted to hear your voice echo. Hence the name “Echo Valley”. However, both my cousin and I felt that seemed disrespectful of the dead whose cemetery we were in just for the “pleasure” of hearing our own voices echo back to us. We also jokingly thought our own deceased grandmother would come back to haunt us and smack us around for being inappropriately loud among the deceased. We chose to pass on the opportunity and continue to follow our guide down the trail.

The end point of the tour before you turn back is to see the hanging coffins. They’re literally hanging on the side of the rocky mountain/hill(?), wooden coffins that had been affixed to the rock. I’m unclear how as our guide was a little difficult to understand but he showed us pictures of them affixing the coffins in crevices in the rockface, attached with wooden strips. Somehow. The reason some of the hanging coffins are shorter than others if the family has the option to “bury” their dead in a sitting position (hence the shorter coffin) or the traditional laid out position. Our own guide’s father was one of the ones in a hanging coffin as he proudly told us.

After Echo Valley, we did a brief stop at Bokong Waterfalls. It’s a short hike to a small waterfall. Hike might be overstating it as it was a very easy downward trail along stone steps. Not quite as slippery as the ones in Echo Valley so it was much easier to navigate and took no time at all. In the summer heat, I imagine it’d be refreshing. When we went it was cold and Emman and our guide, Jesse, thought the water was way too cold, even for wading.

We had originally planned to stay in Sagada for the day and return to Metro Manila the following day but we had gotten such an early start with the sunrise at Mt. Kitelpan that even by doing the Echo Valley Tour and Bokong Falls, we had pretty much exhausted most of our tourist plans by 10 am that morning. Our original plans were to catch the sunset at a different spot which were supposed to be equally breathtaking as at the Sea of Clouds but it was a long, empty day until sunset.

There were other touristy options we could’ve done but most of them involved a harder, longer hike to different waterfalls or caving. I like to think I’m fairly open to new adventures and I’d never been caving before but I hadn’t planned on going caving in the first place so I didn’t have anything appropriate to wear, including footwear. Plus, let me be honest, as soon as I read there “might” be eels and other creatures and there are parts of the cave where we would be knee-deep or waist-deep in water in the caves (not sure if that was true or not), I bailed on the caving idea. Um, eels? No.

So it was an easy decision to decide to head back to Manila a day early. I had already paid a 50% deposit at Agape Log Cabin that covered our first night’s stay and was on the hook for the second night’s stay but when we talked to the helpful folks there, they graciously agreed to release us for the second night’s stay if we were okay with paying half of the cost of the second night. I thought that was fair since it was likely too late for them to rent out our rooms that night and greatly appreciated their flexibility and understanding.
The only downside is it was another long, winding drive back. Fortunately, the weather was clear and wasn’t pouring rain like the day before. That was another reason we decided to drive back early because there were clouds gathering and we didn’t want to be caught in a similar deluge on the way back as it was more hours of driving through the mountains. We did a brief stop at one point to take some pictures where the views were particularly beautiful.

Bistek (beef steak)

The drive back was via Bagiuo, another tourist spot, but as we got closer to Baguio, the traffic got heavier so we veered slightly away, stopped for a late lunch at a place that, according to Emman, was well known for its food then headed back, reaching Manila in the evening. An early ending to my first planned tourist stop but still a good trip.

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